You can’t make someone love you, and other life lessons in The Death of the Heart

This week’s blog post is about The Death of the Heart, a novel by Elizabeth Bowen. I talked about her before in my first blog post, and one of her characters, Lois, was in another one. I think, however, that The Death of the Heart deserves its own blog post.

The Death of the Heart was Bowen’s most well-known novel. It’s easy to argue that it reflects Bowen’s life at the time of publication; Bowen’s Court and she herself were moving between tradition and modernity, something the characters of the novel also struggle with. Upheaval, death, and travelling are some of the themes of the novel that Bowen would have been all-too-familiar with.

elizabeth-bowen
Elizabeth Bowen

Portia, the protagonist, is an orphan, sent to live with her half-brother Thomas Quayne and his wife, Anna. Her story is told three times;

  • first, by Anna, who tells family friend St. Quentin,
  • Matchett, the housemaid who also worked for Thomas’ parents, and
  • Portia herself, who tells Brutt at the end of the novel.

She’s the orphaned daughter of Thomas’s father and the woman he had an affair with; her life has been a constant upheaval.The trio move around the south of France, until Portia’s parents die when she’s sixteen and she joins Thomas and Anna. There, she struggles with London’s social etiquette, and meets Eddie.

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Pages in The Death of the Heart
Portia is still looking for her identity, trying to figure out who she is. She struggles to have normal schoolgirl conversations, and writes in her diary about her struggle to empathise with and understand the people around her. She’s desperate for connection and feeling, which proves disastrous when she meets Eddie.

Eddie has no feeling. He’s manipulative and cold, and convinces Portia that he loves her despite his willingness to discard her completely. He tells her conflicting stories and blames her hurt feelings on her lack of understanding. He refers to Portia as “a person who doesn’t know the ropes“, and he finds this innocence and inability to fit in attractive, though he uses it against her when she reminds him of what he’s previously said about his love for her.

Portia realises, by the end of the novel, that what Eddie feels for her isn’t love.

“You like despising more than you like loving” – Portia, to Eddie

She’s paid attention to the warning signs throughout the novel; his behaviour at Seale-on-Sea, his extreme emotional drama, his behaviour with Anna. She knows he doesn’t love her, but still feels betrayed by him and everyone else around her. She’s lost her innocence, her naivety, and no longer says what she’s thinking. Her heart has been deadened.

This ties in to two of the main lessons Bowen has in this novel;

  • “It is our business to lose our innocence”;
  • You can’t make someone love you.

Portia cannot make Eddie love her, no matter how hard she tries. As well as this, her relationship with Eddie has caused a loss of her innocence, something Bowen believed was a necessary part of life. Portia could not move on from Eddie until she became less naive and saw how he really was.

Have you read this novel? Do you agree or do you think Bowen is trying to tell us something different?

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